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Sermon Preached at St Mary's, Acton, 12/08/2007
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Proper 14
Readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 1:1-3, 8-16;; Luke 12:32-40

Pastor Ignotus wrote in The Tablet back in 2000, that there are two ways of approaching life: a person is either a planner, or a pilgrim. Planners like to have total control over their lives and to be able to plan each stage according to pre-set goals. Planners take their cue from what society considers success. Planners spend most of their time trying to match the lifestyle and values of others. Planners become bitterly disappointed if they fail to achieve these objectives.

Pilgrims, on the other hand, accept life as a gift that unfolds as they live it. Pilgrims understand that however hard they may try, they can never have complete control over what happens. Pilgrims are not deterred by failures and disappointments but see them as opportunities for spiritual growth. Pilgrims never feel entirely comfortable or at ease with society's values.

The planner refuses to live by faith. The pilgrim, on the other hand, lives by faith, knowing that life is full of risk, yet affirming it. The pilgrim senses the full insecurity of the human situation, yet rejoices. That is the essence of faith: putting oneself in God's hands, and opening oneself to the full grace of God's protection. Faith is the willingness to trust our lives and our future to God, even when God does not appear to be as reliable as other, more immediate supports. Faith is the readiness to risk life on the promises of God.

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews affirms that:

Over the centuries this is how the faithful have been. At their best the faithful entrust their lives to God, not needing to be in control, not needing to see the outcomes, living by faith and not by sight.

‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’

For the writer to the Hebrews, faith is absolutely certain that what it believes is true and what it expects will come. It is not the hope which looks forward with wistful longing; it is the hope which looks forward with utter conviction. In the early days of persecution a humble Christian was brought before the judges. He told them that nothing they could do could shake him because he believed that, if he was true to God, God would be true to him. ‘Do you really think’, asked the judge, ‘that the likes of you will go to God and his glory?’ ‘I do not think’, said the man, ‘I know’.

Faith is closely linked to hope. Faith is looking at God and trusting him for everything, while hope is looking at the future and trusting God for it. It is one thing to have a hope, but when you have faith underneath, it gives it assurance. I may hope for a better world, for a new bodily life beyond the grave; but unless I believe in the God who raised Jesus, my hope may degenerate into mere optimism. I may have a general sense that there are unseen realities around me, perhaps even some kind of personal force for good with whom I should have some sort of relationship; but unless I believe in the God we know in Jesus, this sense of unseen things will lack conviction.

‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’

Abraham is the great Old Testament model of faith: he is the quintessential pilgrim. At the word of God he uprooted himself, leaving his home and people, and set out for a land God promised to show him, where he would become the father of a great nation. It was a journey into the unknown. The only compass he had was faith in God.

The faith of Abraham and Sarah is faith that the creator God is also the covenant God; that the particular promises made to this one family, at a time when they seemed absolutely impossible, were backed up by the power which made the world. It isn’t just that Abraham and Sarah thought they heard a strange being speaking to them and decided to believe it, but rather that the God they came to know was the creator God, the one who could give life where there was none.

Just as Sarah was called to believe that God would give her a child even though she was elderly and barren, Abraham had been called to believe that God would give him a homeland even though he was a wandering stranger, a nomad with no fixed abode. Abraham and Sarah did indeed have a son, Isaac, but they never came to possess for themselves the land which God promised them. All they had was the cave which Abraham bought as a burial place. For the rest, they were living on God’s promise.

‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’

Faith is not a general religious attitude to life. Faith is not simply believing so many difficult or impossible things before breakfast. Faith hears and believes the promise of God, the assured word from the world’s creator that he is also the world's redeemer, and that through the strange fortunes of Abraham’s family he is working to build the city which is to come. Faith is future-oriented, trusting that God will keep his promises.

The letter to the Hebrew declares that the faithful pilgrims did not spend their time thinking of the land they had left behind, that they could go back to it. They did not spend their energy wishing for the good old days and engaging in nostalgia. They desired a better country, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.

We are the spiritual descendants of Abraham. We prove ourselves true children of Abraham by imitating his faith. Life is full of uncertainty. Like Abraham, we are journeying into the unknown. We literally don't know what lies around the next bend on the road of life. Yet, in spite of frustrations and failures, we journey on.

Frederick Buechner, an American preacher and writer, reminds us that, ‘faith is more of a process than a possession, more on-again-off-again than once and for all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.’ And Terry Waite, the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East who spent many years in solitary confinement, wrote, ‘The remarkable thing about faith is that it’s not a sudden flash from heaven or a sudden insight of the kind. It’s just something that quietly sustains.’

As we journey on as faithful pilgrims may we echo the words of the Psalmist:

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and shield.
Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy name we put our trust.
Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us,
as we have put our trust in you.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Tom Wright's Hebrews for Everyone (SPCK) and to Flor McCarthy's New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies Year C (Dominican Publications, 2000). I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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